Military Failure & the Crisis in Masculinity


The failed “war on terrorism” is finally winding down.  The poorly thought-through and even-poorer executed war is finally coming to an end.  The imperial conquest and occupation of Iraq is ostensibly over; how long before sectarian divisions reduce the country to a failed state is an open question.  At the end of 2014, the U.S. and other foreign “fighting” troops are scheduled to depart from Afghanistan; the battle against Al-Qaeda and the Taliban will officially end and what happens next is anyone’s guess.  Americans will be witness to yet another great military failure not unlike Vietnam.

In the wake of this retreat, U.S. military casualties will litter the nation for generations to come.  Like the physically and psychologically devastated soldiers who staggered back from Southeast Asia a generation ago, today’s vets — “heroes” or “Warriors” in military speak — will be left to suffer for the failures of the nation’s political leadership never held to account.

One sign of this carnage was recently revealed in a U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) report that found that in 2010 (the last year reported) 22 veterans committed suicide each day in the good-old U.S.A.  This is up 22 percent from 1999 when an estimated 18 veterans killed themselves every day.

Nearly three-fourths (70%) of reported veteran suicides were among men and women aged 50 years or older, Vietnam War vets.  The report warns:  “Estimates that the number of suicides among Veterans each day has increased, are based on information provided by 21 states and may not be generalizable to the larger Veteran population.”  One can only wonder what the total daily suicide rate would be if data from all 50 states were accounted for.

A second sign of carnage involves those coming home with physical casualties. (Coming home in a box or suffering a psychologically disability are other stories.)  Between October 7, 2001 and May 7, 2012, a total of 54,509 U.S. military personal were identified as suffering physical casualties.  They were involved in the wars in Afghanistan (aka “Operation Enduring Freedom”) and Iraq (aka “Operation Iraqi Freedom” and, after August 2010, “Operation New Dawn”).  A December 2012 Congressional Research Service study notes that “reporting on casualties of Afghans did not begin until 2007,” so the data for six years or so is not included.

It is difficult to fully anticipate the long-term consequences for the returning vets due to injuries from the “war on terrorism.”  Thousands, if not tens of thousands, of men and women will spend the rest of their lives suffering from the injuries inflicted in the military misadventure.

The USC School of Social Work’s Center for Innovation and Research on Veterans & Military Families (CIR) recently received a $650,000 grant to conduct a study of sexual functioning and libido among U.S. service people, vets and their families.  Sherrie Wilcox, the project director, estimates that between 5 percent and 25 percent of recent veterans report concerns with regard to sexual functioning.

“An estimated 1,500 service members have experienced genital injuries, including infection caused by pulverized sand embedded in the groin area or mutilation caused by projectiles and other explosive devices,” Wilcox points out.  These people also report suffering diminished sexual function, infertility, loss of libido, chronic pain and urinary dysfunction.

In war, technology plays a double-edged role. It significantly raises the casualty count for soldiers and civilians and, in particular, injuries associated with the bodily extremities, particularly the genitals.  Simultaneously, it increases the effectiveness of medical procedures (especially amputations) and prosthetic devices to save and sustain soldiers’ lives.

Masculinity in the West has been, since at least the days of Zeus, symbolized by a power to harness nature and technology, the lightning bolt, to a man’s will, especially for war.  America culture is still strongly patriarchal and terribly militaristic.  It glorifies war, promising young men (and an increasing number of women) a path to individual self-realization through patriotic struggle, military virility.  The unstated premise is that glory, honor, sacrifice and heroism (self-hood itself!) can be realized through military barbarism.  That these values are somehow inexorably bound to a man’s genitals should come as no surprise.

*  *  *

Steve Waxman, MD, JD and Colonel in the U.S. Army Reserves, reports that 1 in 20 of all injuries suffered in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were related to genitourinary (GU) trauma.  “The vast majority of these injuries were puncturing (penetrating) in nature and most were as a result of improvised explosive devices (IEDs),” he writes.  He segments the respective level of genital injuries into three physical zones: (i) the scrotum (29%), (ii) the testis (9%) and the penis (14%).

Waxman notes, “blast injuries to the male external genitalia are much different than those injuries seen in civilian practice.”  Civilians commonly suffer a genital injury from a gunshot or knife would, but military injuries most often come from an IED blast.  He adds, “typically the wounds are grossly contaminated with debris from the blast.”  He points out the soldiers don’t usually ware the “groin flap” that extends body armor vests nor the special Kevlar-fabric enhanced underwear issued to British troops.  Most remarkable about the new age of war medicine is the fact that  “saving the testicle(s) in the war zone hospitals have been reported to be as high as 74% in Operation Iraqi Freedom.”

Waxman’s findings confirm a 2011 Army Surgeon General report, “Dismounted Complex Blast Injury.”  The report details how the survival rate among wounded combat soldiers has dramatically increased in the seven decades since World War II.  These rates are as follows:  WWI at 70.7%; Korea at 78.2%; Vietnam at 76.0%; Afghanistan at 89.3%; and Iraq at 89.8%.

The report claims that this improvement in survival is link to a handful of key improvements in medical practice during war.  They include utilization of blood transfusion and improvements in ground evacuation, most notably helicopter evacuations.

It does acknowledge, “in the most recent few years of overseas contingency operations there has been a sharp increase in the number and severity of injuries to the external genitalia and lower urinary tract primarily in dismounted troops.”  Retreating into military-speak, the report states: “The hallmark of the injury pattern in the contemporary context is the dismounted Warrior injured by a landmine or other improvised ground-based explosive.”  Since 2005, the combined number of GU-related injuries from both Afghanistan and Iraq decreased significantly.  In 2005, the total was 331; in 2010 it had fallen to 259.

The long-term consequences of these injuries, let along other physical and psychological injuries, are only hinted at in the study.  “The significance of the current pattern of GU injury is the potential impact on physical, reproductive, and behavioral health of these casualties,” it points out.  “It is imperative, therefore, management of this complex pattern of GU injury requires attention paid towards surgical reconstruction and psychological health.”

It also opines, “post-traumatic stress (PTS) and TBI [traumatic brain injury] still play a significant role and add complexity and challenges to the rehabilitation and reintegration of these Warriors.”

* * *

It is difficult to fully anticipate the long-term consequences for returning America military veterans, especially casualties, from the “war on terrorism.”  Thousands, if not tens of thousands, of men and women will spend the rest of their lives suffering from the injuries inflicted in this military misadventure.

Suicide is one indictor of this likely long-term fallout.  A second is mental health.  The VA reports that Afghanistan and Iraq war veterans who sought VA care for Fiscal Years 2002 thru 2012 suffered from PTSD [Posttraumatic Stress Disorder] at 29 percent.  In addition to PTSD, the VA found that among “war on terrorism” vets using VA health care alcohol dependence was at 6 percent, while drug dependence was 3 percent and abuse 5 percent.

Another likely indicator is homelessness.  The VA estimates that approximately 12,700 Afghanistan and Iraq war veterans were homeless in 2010.  They represent that 13 percent of the adult homeless population are veterans; about 8 percent were female vets.  Homeless vets are younger, with about 9 percent between 18 and 30 years and 41 percent between the 31 and 50 years; however, only 5 percent of vets are between 18 and 30 and about 23 percent are between 31 and 50.

Perhaps most startling, it warns:  “About 1.4 million other veterans, meanwhile, are considered at risk of homelessness due to poverty, lack of support networks, and dismal living conditions in overcrowded or substandard housing.”

Today, the bravado of masculinity, of patriotism, is deflating with the military-industrial complex’s campaign of endless war, repeated defeats and the growing number of military casualties.  For men reared under the tyranny of patriarchal masculinity, nothing is so shameful as the loss or severe injury to one’s genital, to a man’s ability to sexually perform.  Many men experience it as castration.

The loss of an eye, hand, leg or other body part doesn’t make a man any less of a man; each organ can be replaced, thus sometime even strengthening, empowering the man.  However, the lose of the ability to sexually perform, to fuck, is for — some?, few?, many?, most? — men in America experienced as a lose of masculinity, a challenge to self-hood.

The “war on terrorism” has been accompanied with many dubious expressions of masculinity.  It opened with “shock and awe” pulverizing a weakened adversary.  It saw a pathetic president parading on an aircraft carrier in an Air Force flight suit declaring “Mission Accomplished.”  It reached its nightmare apex with the torture chambers at Abu Ghraib, eroticized with dog leashes and collars around naked Iraqi men’s necks along with fetish-garbed U.S. service people inflicting s&m punishment while smiling into the camera.

Since Obama’s election in 2008, the “war on terrorism” has steadily slipped from the daily headlines.  His administration’s drawdown in Iraq and planned departure from Afghanistan at yearend 2014 is offset with the expansion of armed drone strikes not only in Afghanistan and Pakistan but also in East Africa (e.g., Somalia and Yemen).  The “war on terrorism” has entered a new, never-ending phase.

Under the tyranny of America’s particular version of patriarchal masculinity, it is nearly impossible to envision an alternative vision of masculinity (let alone femininity).  While many can debate the meaning of “masculinity” in terms of traditional virtues such as “courage,” “strength,” “honor” and “sacrifice,” such values have nothing to do with a man’s genitals, his sexual ability.  Overcoming this contradiction can come only with the end of patriarchy and militarism.

David Rosen writes the Media Current column for Filmmaker and regularly contributes to the Brooklyn Rail.  Check out www.DavidRosenWrites.com; he can be reached at drosennyc@verizon.net.

David Rosen is the author of the forthcoming, Sex, Sin & Subversion:  The Transformation of 1950s New York’s Forbidden into America’s New Normal (Skyhorse, 2015).  He can be reached at drosennyc@verizon.net; check out www.DavidRosenWrites.com.

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